Researching the History of Your Home!

Hey everyone! Today I had the pleasure of speaking at Belleville’s Museum Day activities. I was at the Garfield Saloon talking about how to research the history of your home. I figured these would be great notes to share with all of you. I don’t claim to be an expert in historical research whatsoever, but it is a hobby and passion of mine and we’ve had quite a bit of luck finding information about our house and the original family.

Researching the history of your home is a multi-faceted endeavour… it’s a little bit of determination, a little bit of stubbornness, a lot of patience, and a little bit of luck. My husband and I joke that we can very easily get sucked into an Ancestry black hole and not realize we’ve been staring at our computer screens for four hours until it’s 2 in the morning and our eyes are bloodshot.

The bulk of my research is done online. Today I provided all the guests with a handout of the websites I use… here it is in JPEG form so that you can save it to your phone or PC for reference. It is Belleville specific but no matter where you live, your city website and libraries should have similar information.

resourcesThe first should come as no surprise: Ancestry. This is a subscription service that has proven itself invaluable. I gladly spend the $20 a month to use this service and have discovered photos of original residents of our home that hadn’t previously been connected to our house. They do have a free trial available to use and I highly recommend using it a lot during that trial to see if it’s going to be a good fit. Once on Ancestry, you can search by name, birth date, marriage date, and death date. The search pages will yield results and potential results, perhaps people with similar names or in some instances, cases where the people you actually ARE looking for had their names misspelled on official documents. I discovered that Emma Romeiser actually had three children, one that died at birth. She gave birth to Roland Pannes in September 1916. His birth certificate was written in cursive and had combined the two N’s to be read as an R and an M together, changing the last name from Pannes to Parmes. I’ve purposefully searched the most common misspellings of Romeiser to see what information pops up.

The two websites geneologybank.com and familysearch.org are also incredible resources. Geneologybank blends ancestry like results with digitized newspapers all over the country. Familysearch is free but geneologybank is not. It also offers a free trial. A lot of times you’ll discover that these free trials require credit card information to be entered when you sign up– don’t let this scare you off. I have NEVER had an unauthorized charge on my account and if you cancel within the 2 or 4-week trial period, no charge is ever made to your card. Cancelling free trials is really easy and can be done online through these sites– there’s not even a need to call customer service and sit on hold for an hour. So as long as you click before the deadline, there’s no cost to you.

kitchenfire.pdfUnless you’re okay with spending the money– sometimes you’ll find it’s worth it. Like I pay for Ancestry every month. I also paid the $75 fee to use Newspapers.com for six months because it is such a huge resource to me. On Newspapers.com I search each individual members of my home by name and porr through the results. I also just put our address in the search bar and see what comes up. I found classified ads looking for help with cooking and the laundry, yard sales, and interesting tidbits like a kitchen fire in the early 1900s.

The library will prove invaluable. The archives at the downtown branch are extensive and they have microfiche for decades and decades of archived newspapers. Some of those newspapers have been digitized and are available on a searchable database by keyword. This is also available on the library’s website if you prefer to search from the comfort of your home. All you need to log-in is your library card number, and of course, if you don’t have a library card, they are free to get.

For those of you local to Belleville, the St Clair County Historical Society has archives available and their curator, Will Shannon, has a photo collection to pull from that helped us find photos of some of the Romeiser daughters. The Belleville Historical Society has a similar resource available on their website that lists area museums that have photos, documents, and stories if what you’re looking for is Belleville specific.

Then, of course, there’s just plain old Google. When searching, search names of former residents (if you’re unsure, you can search at the Recorder of Deeds office) and your specific address.

By searching all of these places, you’ll be able to fill in some potential gaps. We’ve used the Belleville City Directory to name owners of pretty much every house on our street and have been able to expand our search from there. I even search those names on Ancestry and see what photos pop up. Sometimes you’ll be able to find photos of neighbors that might have your home in the background or even residents posing with those neighbors.

Like I said, I don’t claim to be an expert in any way and have honestly been very lucky in our research. It takes persistence and patience. Essentially, don’t be afraid to ask local historians and archivists for help, don’t be afraid to search something that may not be entirely accurate (like a misspelled name or your neighbor’s address) because you may end up finding something really interesting, and don’t be afraid to sign up for that free trial or even spend a few dollars for a month or two to give yourself time to find information.

Happy hunting!!
The Brick and Maple Family

Belleville News Democrat Feature

Last week, I sat down with Heidi Wiechert to tell the story of Emma Romeiser Pannes… today the story went live. It is accompanied by a video interview with Derik Holtmann that narrates a bit of her and John’s life set against the backdrop of what they’re most known for: that they died on the Hindenburg.

This has been an incredible experience and I am so grateful that both Heidi and Derik were so thorough. My fear in all of this is that I would miss something or not do Emma and John justice… I shouldn’t have worried about that. The BND honored them both in such a real way.

Here is the link to the story. I hope you’ll share it.

http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article209877944.html

If you found my blog through the story, welcome! Please scroll through the archives to check out my other posts. We’ve tried to mix it up with home renovation projects, historical research, and introducing the original family. We also document our day to day on Instagram. Give us a follow @thebrickandmaple!

Thank you to everyone at the Belleville News Democrat for this incredible story!

Daughters

Imagine the twinkle in a Father’s eye as he gazes upon his sweet children. Picture the care and devotion that went into nurturing tiny loves, joy felt in watching them reach milestones, the swelling of pride as they learned to read and sing and dance. Imagine an outing to a photographer in St. Louis specifically to capture those little moments forever. The year would have been sometime in the early 1890s- perhaps 1891 or 2…

I can see it now. Peter and Elise Romeiser rise for the day and, with the help of their house maid Lizzie, delicately clean and ready three crisp, white dresses, stockings, and hair ribbons. They bathe the three sweet, beloved Romeiser daughters and tie their hair in bows. Peter readies the carriage that will take them into St. Louis to photographer F.W. Guerin.

Fitz W. Guerin was a New York native and at the age of 13 set out for St. Louis to work for Merrill Drug Company. As a teen he joined the Union Army, later becoming the recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. On returning to civilian life, he became a successful society and celebrity photographer in St. Louis.

The Romeisers, being of high society, utilized his services on this day in the early 1890s. The photograph, preserved for over a century, comes to us via the St. Clair County Historical Society and the hard work of their curator, William P. Shannon IV. In meeting with him yesterday, he supplied this image that actually made me cry.

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Photo Collection, St. Clair County Historical Society, Used with Permission

In the photo, you’ll see eldest Romeiser daughter Emma, born in 1880. She would be around 11 or 12 in this photo. In the middle is Petra, aged 8/9, and on the far right is Corona, who we haven’t introduced to you yet, dear reader. Corona was born in 1887, the same year Peter built this impressive house on Abend Street.

I look at these sweet faces and at once am both overjoyed and saddened. Overjoyed because I know how deeply they were loved. Saddened because I know of the harrowing and heartbreaking experiences they will encounter as they get older. Their life at this point is so charmed… I am comforted by the fact that they won’t yet experience the first of their tragedies for another 15-years.

It’s how I can also see this lovely photo of Emma from 1899 with still a modicum of joy. Also provided by Will at the SCCHS, this photo is dated and signed by Emma. Christmas, 1899. She would have been 19… she was living life as a new adult, enjoying parties, engagements, and life in high-society, even having been named to the court of the 1898 Belleville Flower Carnival.

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Photo Collection, St. Clair County Historical Society, Used with Permission

Of all the Romeiser children, I feel a special connection with Emma. Perhaps in name, perhaps the fact that she’s the eldest of their three daughters, I don’t know why– I just know deep in my bones that I have to tell her story. Tomorrow (Friday, April 27th), I’m meeting with a reporter from our local newspaper so we can put forth a special article about Emma ahead of the anniversary of the crashing of the Hindenburg. (To read my full post on Emma’s life, click here!)

It’s the first step in a long, thought-out process of getting Emma’s story published, of securing her place in the annals of history, of ensuring that no one ever forgets what happened to her and her family.

But for now, I can gaze upon these sweet faces and think about what their lives might have been.

Endless thanks to Will Shannon and the entire staff of employees and volunteers at the St. Clair County Historical Society. They work tirelessly to preserve these pieces of history and we could not be more grateful.

Stay sweet, be grateful, hug your babies. Take their photo today and cherish it.
The Brick and Maple Family ❤ 

Opportunity Doesn’t Knock… it Rings the Doorbell

I can honestly say that I never once in my life pictured an afternoon spent researching the history of the doorbell. But, it’s still cold outside (surprise, surprise), so what else am I going to do? Clean? Yeah… right.

Recently, local Belleville history enthusiast and President of the Belleville Historical Society Larry Betz contacted me and my husband saying he had something of ours. He went on to explain that it was the original doorbell to the Romeiser house. When we met up with him, he explained further.

The house has been mostly occupied since it was built in 1887. The Romeiser family owned it until 1919 when it was sold, converted to a boarding house, and then later changing hands a few times over the years. When the house ultimately ended up in foreclosure in the early-20aughts, the house was essentially emptied. The fact that so much of our beautiful architectural details survived that time is impressive to me. Larry told us how he came in and was able to procure the home’s original doorbell and he’s been holding on to it ever since. He expressed how it was time to return it to its rightful place on the walls of this incredible home.

The doorbell itself is, at its core, simple, though advanced for the time. The fact that the Romeisers even HAD a doorbell is impressive. However, knowing how Peter Romeiser was at the forefront of basically every advancement and was a very progressive thinker, I’m not surprised. His store, The Romeiser Company, changed the way businesses operate. He was one of the first merchants to use a set-price model for his items… the price you see on the tag is what you pay, no haggling. His store was the first in Belleville to use interior electricity. We know for a fact he had a home telephone in 1906– if not earlier. He saw the value in invention, the beauty in progress, and he wanted to be a part of that.

We fully believe this doorbell is original to the home’s construction. (It looks almost identical to this image I found on Wikipedia of an 1884 doorbell from Budapest.) 640px-Lakáscsengő_-_Andrássy_út_94_szám_II._emelet_2_ajtószám_(1)Simple clapper doorbells work through high-school science. When you push the button, you complete an electrical circuit. This “push-to-make” switch powers a hammer that rings a bell. My husband (you know, the one I previously mentioned who just knows how to do everything? Yeah. Him.), he totally got this thing to work while tinkering with it down in the basement. We may wrap our heads around REALLY getting it to work but for now will still display it lovingly.

I am so thankful to Larry for thinking of us and being so devoted to preserving history and saving the details of these old homes. Without his dedication, this piece of Romeiser house history would likely be lost today and we’d have had no way of knowing it ever existed.

His work with The Belleville Historical Society, along with the work of other members, is inspiring and exciting. And it’s for those reasons that I’ve decided to partner with them and join as a member. I’m also really thrilled to be able to announce that they’ve nominated me to a position on their Board of Trustees which was approved at their membership meeting last week!

The way that the pieces of my life have fallen into place within only 7 months of moving here is nothing less than extraordinary. The ways in which people have embraced us and supported us and encouraged us to get involved have made us feel more at home than any place we’ve lived in a really long time. I am practically buzzing with excitement over the possibilities and wondering what the future holds; it’s exactly the kind of life I pictured for myself when I was a little girl.

To check out what the Belleville Historical Society is all about, visit their website and consider joining or donating! So here’s to many, many more years researching Belleville homes and families, and preserving those stories for years to come. Even if it means spending an hour reading about doorbells.

The Belleville Library: Part II

Last week, we introduced you to the connection between the Romeisers and the Belleville Public Library. Missed the first post? Check it out here!

And here… is the rest of the story.

At the end of Part I, you learned about how monies from leftover Romeiser Company stock had been donated to the library by Peter’s children. It was the first public donation made to the library and (in today’s terms) totaled upwards of $20,000.

On the 2nd floor of the library hangs a portrait of Peter. There is a small mark in the corner designating the photographer (Strauss of St. Louis) and the year, 1917– the year after his death. The library was constructed and dedicated in 1916 and the donation from his children came shortly thereafter. It only makes sense that this print was made specifically to be donated to the library along with the endowment funds. It is the only actual photograph of him we know to exist… everything else is either a drawing or a newspaper printing.

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Forgive the glare… with all the windows, this was the best we could do. 🙂

The library is filled with photos depicting prominent people and events in Belleville’s history. After spending so much time there, Mr. Brick and Maple and I just all of a sudden realized that of ALL the photographs hanging, Peter’s was the only one without an information marker. All the others have little placquards explaining their significance.

Well, if you know anything at all about me, you know that just didn’t sit well. So, I reached out to the library director to see if they would allow us to donate a plaque with a description of Peter and why he’s so important. We were thrilled when Mr. Leander Spearman, Director of the library, agreed!

As it turns out, there was no plaque next to Peter’s photo because there never HAD been one. Mr. Romeiser’s significance, his story, his family’s involvement in the development of the library, had all been lost to time. Mr. Spearman went on to explain that the portrait– Peter’s portrait– has remained somewhat of a mystery to the entire staff.

Today we were able to deliver the plaque to the library and have this small part of the Romeiser’s story saved for generations to come. We were also able to submit a blurb for the library’s new website and newsletter and have been asked to compile an informal book to add to the library archives for posterity.

 

It’s these kinds of passion projects that I absolutely LIVE FOR. I spend everyday excited that we can contribute in this way, that we have a small part in making sure no one forgets.

Next time you’re at the library, pop up to the second floor and say hey to Peter. You’ll know it’s him by his smile lines and the kindness in his eyes.

Until next time,
The Brick and Maple Family

The Belleville Library: Part I

Located on E. Washington Street, the Belleville Library was constructed in 1916 by way of a $45,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Over the course of his adult life, Andrew Carnegie made it his personal crusade to build libraries all over the world. All said, Carnegie spent $55 million to build 1,679 libraries in the United States and 830 abroad.

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Belleville Public Library

During the library dedication ceremony on January 20, 1916, then-board director Jacob Aull encouraged all Belleville residents to thank Carnegie by sending him letters and postcards. (Photos of library dedication courtesy of the Belleville Historical Society)

Other than an addition made to the building in the 1970s, the original building stands almost unchanged. Updates and upgrades have been made throughout the years but otherwise, she stands just as she did in 1916.

Here’s where the Romeisers come in.

When Peter died in 1916, he left a detailed Will & Testament. Everything was covered from the house and land all the way down to each share of company stock. He divided up 300 shares amongst his children and left a reserve for philanthropy. His daughter, Emma, spearheaded the idea that the remaining children (herself and her three brothers Theodore, Edwin, and Alvin) use that reserve to make a public donation to the library.

News Article

The amount at the time, $1,680, was the first public donation to the Belleville library and equates to more than $20,000 in today’s terms.

Emma wrote a letter to Charles Grossart, who took over The Romeiser Company after Peter’s death, about what to do with the funds. Her letter reads:

“My dear Mr. Grossart,

After months of pondering what to do with the money father left as a reserve, I have finally decided that a book shelf in the Public Library as an “In Memoriam” for father would be best of all. Alvin, Edwin, and Theodore are all agreed that it would please father. In this way, the money would be put to a fine purpose and serve to keep green his memory in the town in which he was so much interested. The best kind of monument.

The details and arrangements, I’m afraid, I must leave to you. After the stock is sold and the money available, would you still be willing to act as trustee of the fund until it has been used up? My idea is that from time to time books of real value shall be added to the library, fiction excluded. Books perhaps like Carl Sandburg’s ‘Abraham Lincoln’ and Emil Ludwig’s wonderful ‘Napoleon,’ books that will be permanent additions to the library. Of course a library committee must be appointed and I would be pleased to have the list submitted to me if possible.

Please let me know what you think of the plan, and what you would suggest in the matter. With greetings from all here to you and your family.

Sincerely, Emma Pannes.”


The connection between the Romeisers and the library doesn’t end here… there’s a second part to this story that I’ll be covering next week. So be sure to hit ‘subscribe’ and check back next week for Part II!

Stay sweet,
The Brick and Maple Family

“Belleville, Illinois, Illustrated”

Published by the Reid-Fitch Publishing Company in St. Louis in 1905, the ‘Belleville Illinois Illustrated’ book is a fantastic depiction of Victorian life in Belleville.

It features text and photos of all the prominent businesses, structures, and homes in Belleville while also providing a little bit of history.

I was so excited to find not one but TWO photos of The Brick and Maple!!

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Zooming in, it’s incredible to be able to see old stained glass windows, the original porch, the horse hitching post, and how much land they owned before selling the neighboring parcel around 1919. This is also likely the personal horse and carriage of the Romeiser Family. By searching old Sanborn fire maps, we know there was a carriage house constructed with the home in 1887. According to stories from neighbors, it may have stood even up until the 1990s. It looks as if Peter Romeiser himself is sitting in the carriage! 

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The entire digital version of the book is available online and is a fun way to spend a chilly Friday morning! Check it out here!

Enjoy!
~The Brick and Maple Family